It’s a good thing LoveHKFilm.com never implemented a ratings system because I don’t know how I could even begin to rate House, a cult classic from Japan that’s so bonkers that you’re not ever sure whether you’re supposed to scream or to laugh at what’s occurring onscreen. The film’s unsettling tonality is, of course, by design, and if you can get into the imaginative spirit of the film, you might find House to be a fun, peculiarly rewarding film experience.
The film, sometimes called Hausu (perhaps to preserve a sense of “Japaneseness” and distinguish it from the 1984 horror film starring William Katt), comes from the demented mind of director Nobuhiko Obayashi or, to be more accurate, his preteen daughter, Chigumi. Motivated by the success of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, the suits at Toho asked Obayashi to develop House. Drawing upon both the childhood fears and fantasies of his young daughter, Obayashi worked with screenwriter Chiho Katsura to develop a script. Although the events depicted in the film may lead you to believe that Obayashi and company were just making things up as they went along, a closer look suggests that there may just be a method to the director’s madness, as even the most seemingly incomprehensible events accord to a kind of dream logic that open the film up to, at the very least, a psychoanalytic interpretation.
House centers on – as many horror films tend to – a group of teenagers, mostly portrayed by amateur actors. These seven very different girls all go by nicknames that reflect dominant character types: Gorgeous (Kimiko Ikegami), Melody (Eriko Tanaka), Fantasy (Kumiko Oba), Prof (Ai Matsubara), Sweet (Masayo Miyako), Kung Fu (Miki Jinbo) and the supposedly overweight Mac (Mieko Sato), who gets her nickname from her purported love of McDonald’s. Gorgeous, the de facto leader of the group, had planned to spend her summer vacation on a trip with her father (Saho Sasazawa), a famous film composer. Her father, however, springs some shocking news on his daughter – he has a new wife, Ryoko Ema (Haruko Wanibuchi), and she’s coming along to crash their father-daughter vacation.
Angry at her father, Gorgeous begins thinking about her deceased mother, soon recalling a forgotten auntie (Yoko Minamida) who has lived alone since her husband died during World War II. When their travel plans also fall through, the other six girls decide to accompany Gorgeous as she travels to her aunt’s remote home located somewhere in the Japanese countryside.
Gorgeous and her aunt haven’t seen much of each other in a very long while, but they both seem eager to reconnect. Still, things are a little weird at Auntie’s house. As a gift, the girls present Gorgeous’ aunt with a watermelon, which she keeps in a well as an old-fashioned way to keep the thing refrigerated. However, when Mac later goes to retrieve the watermelon, she gets more than she bargained for, as does Fantasy when she tries to find her now-missing friend.
Meanwhile, Auntie has gone from a weak old spinster confined to a wheelchair to a vibrant, physically capable woman in a very short period of time. Could her improved condition have anything to do with the fact that the girls are starting to go missing? And if Auntie herself isn’t creepy enough, there’s a dancing skeleton and man-eating furniture to contend with, not to mention a piano from hell and a demonic green-eyed cat you won’t soon forget. With the teens quickly becoming cannon fodder, it seems like Gorgeous may be the only one who can save the day – but will she?
In the above basic plot summary, I have tried my best to remain reticent about the finer details of House, so you can experience the madcap lunacy for yourself. The film is practically all over the place from a visual, tonal and cinematic standpoint, as it pulls out every trick in the editing and visual effects book, completely unconcerned whether or not they appear fake or cheesy to the viewer. The film maintains a vibrant, often surreal color palette that is complemented by the highly artificial sets and background paintings.
As one might expect from this description, the film’s tone and style may give you a bad case of whiplash as it careens from the silly humor of a teen movie to over-the-top gore of a horror movie to titillating scenes of nudity best left to an exploitation picture. Similarly, the film’s pacing seems to have been designed to match the attention span of a child, not to mention the logic of a game of pretend. Combine that with Obayashi’s tendency to luxuriate on a long, overly stylized scene to the point of corniness, and you have a film that feels a lot like a Nyquil-induced fever dream.
To be clear, this cult film won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, possibly garnering reactions ranging from outright irritation to resigned ambivalence. But despite the film’s cheesy “WTF?” moments, there’s something oddly endearing about the deranged way the film goes about its business. In stark contrast to other Japanese directors who’ve tried similar experiments, House never feels stuffy or pretentious in its avant-gardism. Perhaps that’s why House was a box office hit in Japan, as it appealed to the masses despite receiving a critical drubbing from the press.
Whatever the case, House really amounts to an “everything but the kitchen sink” type of movie, where Obayashi lays bare his influences (Italian giallo, Bugs Bunny cartoons, children’s fables, B-movies, et al), throws them in a blender and tosses them all onscreen to see what’ll stick. And as much as I’m inclined to say that the film amounts to an enjoyable, if ultimately incomprehensible experience, the truth is that Obayashi gives you enough information within the narrative to open the film up to intelligent conversation and interpretation about just what happened and why. Although by no means a crowd pleaser in the contemporary sense of the term, House is the right kind of nutty fun for an authentic midnight movie experience. (Calvin McMillin, 2011)